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Meet the magician who says he created a deepfake Biden robocall with AI

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WATCH: Artificial Intelligence could threaten elections. What is Ottawa doing to regulate it? – Feb 17, 2024

A New Orleans street magician said Friday that a Democratic consultant who worked for Dean Phillips’ presidential campaign hired him to create the audio for what authorities have said may be the first known attempt to use artificial intelligence to interfere with a U.S. election.

Paul Carpenter, who specializes in card tricks and illusions, told The Associated Press he was hired by Steve Kramer to use AI to mimic President Joe Biden’s voice for the robocalls. He said he was surprised to learn later that the call was used in an attempt to discourage people from voting for Biden in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary last month.

“I created the gun. I didn’t shoot it,” he said.

New Hampshire authorities have said the recorded message, sent to thousands of voters two days before the Jan. 23 election, violated the state’s voter suppression laws. They have issued cease-and-desist orders to two Texas companies they believe were involved. The connection to the Louisiana magician was first reported by NBC News.

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A spokesperson for Attorney General John Formella declined to comment Friday on whether investigators are looking into Carpenter or Kramer, saying only that the investigation continues.

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The Phillips campaign denounced the calls and Kramer’s alleged actions, saying the $260,000 it paid him in December and January was for help getting on the ballot in New York and Pennsylvania.

“If it is true that Mr. Kramer had any involvement in the creation of deepfake robocalls, he did so of his own volition which had nothing to do with our campaign,” spokeswoman Katie Dolan said in an emailed statement. “The fundamental notion of our campaign is the importance of competition, choice, and democracy. We are disgusted to learn that Mr. Kramer is allegedly behind this call, and if the allegations are true, we absolutely denounce his actions.”

Reached by text, Kramer referred questions Friday to his spokesman, political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who declined to comment.

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Liz Purdy, a senior adviser for the Biden-Harris campaign in New Hampshire, said it supports efforts to hold accountable anyone who attempts to disrupt elections and remains “hyper vigilant” to disinformation threats.

In his interview with the AP, Carpenter described himself as a transient “digital nomad” who travels by motorcycle with his long-haired dachshund, Moose. He describes the dog as a “psychiatric support animal” helping him cope with the trauma of having been hit by gunfire several years ago in New Orleans, when a dispute broke out among acquaintances.

Carpenter said he does close-up magic tricks — including illusions in which he seems to bend spoons and forks at will — on the streets and at conventions. He told NBC that he holds world records in fork-bending and straitjacket escapes.

He also travels with a beat-up laptop and other electronic equipment he uses to create social media content and projects related to digital assets known as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.

Paul Carpenter, a New Orleans magician, describes using his computer and AI software during an interview in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Carpenter says he was hired in January by Steve Kramer, who has worked on ballot access for Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips, to use AI software to imitate President Joe Biden’s voice to convince New Hampshire Democrat voters not to vote in the state’s presidential primary. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton).

Carpenter said he met Kramer last year through mutual acquaintances, and said Kramer initially hired him to make AI audio using the faked voice of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham before he hired him to make the Biden audio.

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Carpenter said he thought Kramer worked for the Biden campaign, and said the job was pitched to him as a possible time- and cost-saving measure, eliminating the need for the candidate to go to a recording studio.

“I didn’t know anything about him working on the other presidential campaign,” Carpenter said.

Screenshots Carpenter shared with NBC News and the AP include a text Kramer sent him three days before the New Hampshire primary saying he had emailed Carpenter a script. Venmo transactions show an account with the same name as Kramer’s father paid Carpenter $150 on Jan. 20, three days before the primary.

Two days later, when news of the fake Biden robocall broke, the texts provided by Carpenter show Kramer texting him a link to a story and the message, “Shhhhhhh.”

“I called him immediately and said, ‘Dude, what’s going on?’” Carpenter said when interviewed by the AP in New Orleans. Kramer, he said, treated the matter lightly, but also said Carpenter should get rid of emails about the work.

“Hahaha. It’s all good. Don’t worry about it, just delete all the emails, act like nothing happened,” Carpenter said, describing the exchanges with Kramer. “’Don’t worry about it, it’s going to disappear,’ was what he said to me.”

Later, Carpenter said, he learned that criminal investigations had been launched. That made him nervous, so he contacted an NBC reporter. He told the AP he has an attorney and is considering legal action against Kramer.

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The recorded robocall was sent to between 5,000 and 25,000 voters. It used a voice similar to Biden’s, employed his often-used phrase, “What a bunch of malarkey” and falsely suggested that voting in the primary would preclude voters from casting a ballot in November’s general election.

Biden won the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate after he kept his name off the ballot in deference to South Carolina’s new lead-off position for the Democratic primaries.

The calls falsely showed up to recipients as coming from the personal cellphone number of Kathy Sullivan, a former state Democratic Party chair who helps run Granite for America, a super PAC that supported the Biden write-in campaign.

Sullivan said in an email Friday that she had not heard of Kramer until she read the NBC story, and has received “no apology from Dean Phillips for his highly paid consultant spoofing my number.”

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